AUSTIN (AP) — Jamaal Charles’ mission was simple: Get bigger and stronger because Texas needs him to carry a much larger load at tailback this season.
There was another, quieter goal: get tougher.
The speedster who dazzled as a freshman with slick moves and big plays during the 2005 national championship season took a step backward in ’06. His yards and touchdowns tailed off and the Texas running game disappeared late in the season as the Longhorns fell to 10-3.
Soon after the Alamo Bowl win over Iowa, Charles was off to the weight room to add muscle and get an offseason push from the coaches that it was time to learn how to play through the pain of bumps of bruises. He put on about 12 pounds of muscle to get up to 205.
“I feel way more powerful, faster and quicker, too,” Charles said. “Hopefully this year will be better for me.”
The Longhorns have expected big things from Charles since signing him out of Port Arthur Memorial, where he was a high school All-American and local legend after breaking Joe Washington’s 30-year-old city rushing record.
Charles expected a breakout season after rushing for 878 yards and 11 touchdowns as a freshman with a highlight 80-yard TD run against Oklahoma that helped snap a six-game losing streak to the Sooners.
With the Longhorns breaking in Colt McCoy at quarterback last season, many fans expected Charles to become the focus of the offense and join the long list of 1,000-yard rushers at UT.
Instead, he split time in the backfield with senior Selvin Young. And while the two are friends, the rotation never let him get comfortable in the offense.
“It is a way different feeling (this year) knowing that I’m going to be the guy back there starting,” he said.
Charles’ 831 yards outgained Young by nearly 250 last season, but Young’s leadership and willingness to play through nagging injuries kept him on the field.
Brown wants to see more of both out of Charles this season and said he can be “an absolute star” if he can stay on the field.
Case in point: the third quarter of the Alamo Bowl. Texas trailed and Charles wanted to come out after tweaking his leg. The coaches sent him back in and he caught a 72-yard touchdown pass on the next play. It proved he could play at a high level even when he didn’t feel his best.
“Jamaal is a great athlete, and I think he was disappointed in the year he had last year,” offensive coordinator Greg Davis said. “I think he has higher standards for himself, and certainly we did.”
A top sprinter on the track team who finished fifth in the NCAA in the 100 meters as a freshman, Charles skipped the indoor season this year to hit the weights.
He says the added pounds and muscle haven’t slowed his straightaway speed or sabotaged the swivel in his hips. He still runs the 100 in 10.3 seconds, fastest on the team.
“He has worked his rear end off,” Brown said.
Skipping indoor track also meant he didn’t have to miss spring practices and could spend more time bonding with teammates.
“I’m supposed to be the starter,” Charles said. “It wouldn’t be good for me to miss out.”
Charles can be a dangerous receiver, and the Longhorns hope to get him as many as 30 touches a game, similar to the load Cedric Benson carried in 2004.
Benson was a thicker, more powerful runner who seemed much more comfortable taking the beating that comes with running into the line. Charles’ style has been one of slasher who can glide and weave his way around tackles instead of breaking them.
“I can see myself getting that many carries a game,” he said. “In high school, I carried it 35 to 40 times a game, so it’s not different up here, people are just bigger and stronger.”
Texas’ running game collapsed late last season. The Longhorns totaled just 140 yards on the ground in the last two games against Texas A&M and Iowa, averaging 3.0 yards per carry. They also failed to produce a 1,000-yard rusher for the first time since 1994.
Rebuilding the rushing attack will take more than just the few pounds Charles has added. The Longhorns must replace three starters on the offensive line.
“It all starts with our offensive line,” McCoy said. “I’m anxious to see how it goes because I know the hard work, the effort and the dedication that’s been put into this.”